Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Cycling through time on the Camino de Santiago

by Cindy Ross


This article provides an interesting description of the author's pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. It is written more as a travelogue than as a spiritual journal painting a written picture of the Spanish countryside.

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The Denver Post

Publisher & Date

Denver Newspaper Agency, July 12, 2005

The pungent incense, the flickering candlelight reflecting off the ancient church's vaulted ceiling and the sound of the priests' voices reciting an 800-year-old blessing for our safe journey ahead overwhelm me with feeling and my eyes begin to tear. We are about to embark on one of the most inspiring journeys of our lives. From this Augustian Abbey, my family of four and four friends will set off to cycle 500 miles on the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) across the northern part of the Iberian Peninsula, to the mortal remains of the apostle James.

All 200 of today's starting pilgrims are invited up to the altar, where five white-robed priests extend their arms above our bowed heads. From every corner of the world we came, to this tiny 12th-century monastery in the village of Roncesvalles, tucked into the foothills of the Pyrenees in northeastern Spain. St. James, who is the patron saint of Spain, was beheaded in Jerusalem in 42 AD and his remains were moved here. Since the discovery of the tomb in the 9th century, the journey to Santiago de Compestello has become one of the three great Christian pilgrimages in the world, along with those to Rome and Jerusalem. Charlemagne and his army, Napoleon, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, St. Francis of Assisi trod this path, but who would know this? But people ask, "Is this the trail Shirley MacLaine hiked and wrote a book about?" Yes! Now we will follow in the footsteps of millions.

During the first centuries of the second millenium, most believed that if a person stood in the presence of sacred relics, part of that sacred spirit would transfer to the person. The remains of St. James in Santiago and the hundreds of churches along the way with their own saint's relics made this an important route for medieval pilgrims. At the height of its popularity in the 14th century, 1 million people trudged along the Camino. As a consequence, this road served as an important communications link between the many different cultures of Europe — a place of cultural, artistic and trade exchanges during the Middle Ages.

For more than 1,500 years, most pilgrims have walked carrying a small backpack, but we are cycling the route, sticking as close to the original path as possible. ("The Camino" we are cycling refers to the Camino Frances), the route coming from France, the most popular. But there is really a network of routes, many of Roman origin, extending all through Europe, all leading to Santiago.) Accommodations are hostel-type shelters (known as refugios or albergues), whose volunteer hospitality was set up centuries ago to offer shelter, food and other aid to sick, injured and needy pilgrims. Some shelters are completely modern and new; others can be 1,800-year old monasteries. We will cross the same rivers on ancient bridges, pass through the same villages, visit the same chapels, churches and cathedrals as our medieval forbears. We will travel in the shadows of the past; each day will be a field trip through a continuous museum.

We receive a passport that we'll get stamped at least once a day, at the various refugios, churches, etc. to prove that we made the pilgrimage. When we arrive in Santiago, two weeks later, we'll get an official certificate and receive special blessings and indulgences from the Catholic Church. This year is a holy year, which occurs whenever the feast of St. James falls on a Sunday, every six or seven years. If we complete our pilgrimage in a Holy Year, (some guidebooks say), everything we've ever done wrong in our lives will be forgiven. A good reason to come in 2004.

Many Spaniards hope to travel the Camino at least once in their lifetime and 70 percent of the pilgrims you meet hail from Spain. The other 30 percent are a mixture of people from 63 countries. (We were told not to expect anyone to speak English in these remote rural sections of Spain, but ancient languages like Basque and Galician, a relative of Portuguese.) Almost three-quarters of all pilgrims are Catholic, and nearly half are students. One in five don't make the entire trip.

Pilgrims cite many reasons for making the journey — historical, cultural, religious, athletic and some, just the sense of adventure. Our group, which included our two children — daughter, Sierra, 14, and son, Bryce, 12, are here for a combination of all of the above and because we simply like to ride bikes in interesting places.

The Camino across Spain begins at Roncesvalles, 7 km from the border of France, high in Basque country where the steep hills and deep valleys challenge the pilgrim. We are carrying between 20 and 45 pounds of gear, depending on our age and strength and covering between 30 and 45 miles per day. We have chosen early May in hopes of beating the heat and the crowds. We're riding mountain bikes so we can stick to the historic path as much as possible.

The countryside is as emerald green as Ireland, with fields of brilliant yellow rape flowers, and ancient vineyards looking like crooked, hunched-over old men. We spot a woman in a wheelchair rolling down the shoulder of the road, her dog following on a leash, her husband dutifully pushing her closer to Santiago. They started in Rome and have been on the road 10 months. After Santiago, their next goal is Jerusalem. Their sojourn makes ours feel small and too rapid. We give them money for the day's meals and hope they find what they are looking for.

A spectacular downhill ride dumps us into the ancient medieval town of Pamplona. Most Americans know Pamplona only as the site of "the running of the bulls," but it has more interesting treasures than that. We cycle slowly through narrow cobblestone streets, stretch our necks up to see ornate, wrought iron balconies climbing skyward, pots of brilliant flowers cascading downward. We drink at fountains spouting delicious drinking water, taste warm flaky pastries with melted chocolate from open-air bakeries A band plays in the plaza and locals cheer us as we ride through. Most pilgrims tote large scallop shells with the cross of St. James painted on it, the symbol of the Camino. The tradition began long ago as the pilgrims carried a Galician seashell homeward, for many never saw the coast before. Walkers wear the shells around their necks or tied to their packs; cyclists drape them over a pannier. They link us to the past, the road, and the community of pilgrims.

After a day of cycling, the refuges are a welcome sight. Laundry hangs outside while pilgrims lounge in the sun, resting and bandaging sore feet. Most walkers are not athletes, (whereas most cyclists have experience) and have never done anything like this before. The smell of foot liniment and muscle cream tickles my nose. Many languages are spoken and communication consists of a mixture of charades, sign language and rough-sounding Spanish.

Capacity in the refuges is anywhere from a dozen to 800 beds; (more beds as you approach Santiago, for many "pilgrims" only do the last stretches. You only need to rack up 62 miles as walker and 120 miles as a cyclist or horseback rider to be an "official" pilgrim). It's first come first served and it is sometimes a race to get a bed, especially in the height of the busy summer. A good night's sleep can be a challenge, for some refuges are simply a single large open room with more than 100 bunks, some piled three high. Earplugs are a must. Others give a group like us their own private room.

Many refuges have kitchens, so we can purchase pasta, canned fish, ham, bread and cheese in a local market and whip ourselves up a simple supper. We find a group of Portuguese sharing their dinner with us, an Italian offering his wine, a Dane making us coffee. Nearly every town, however, sports a bar with a "pilgrim menu" (about $6 to $8) for a full course meal — not a deal for a family of four.

A bed costs between 5 and 8 Euros ($3-$7).

You could, of course, opt for one of the hotels, which provide varying degrees of luxury. But then you are missing out on one of the most important elements of the Camino experience — the sense of community and camaraderie that has lasted for centuries.

Starting the day can be a challenge as walkers typically get up before the sun, switch on the overhead lights like a bustling army barrack and leave in a pack. Cyclists are more laid back, start later and pass every walker before lunch.

Food is no longer free to the pilgrims as in centuries gone by so most receive their nourishment from the many cafes and bars along the way. At the San Juan de Ortega refugio, however, we feel as if we have returned to another century when a priest and an old woman who runs the place bursts through the ancient wooden doors carrying a huge pot of soup and tin cups and spoons. Traditional soup is the typical evening meal made for pilgrims: oil, many cloves of garlic and floating chunks of bread. Our hosts pass out servings to all 60 present and proceed to take turns singing national anthems from each country represented.

After Pamplona, we leave the Pyrenees behind; the land flattens out and we enter the plains, famous for being one of the most difficult stretches of the Camino. Very hot and dry like a desert in the summer, cold and windy in the winter. Our enemy is the wind and we ride in a pack, the strongest up front, children behind, plastic bags for mittens on our hands to warm our stiff fingers. We draft like Canada geese, taking turns breaking the wind when the leaders become fatigued and look for the clay-tiled roofs of the church steeple on the horizon, always the tallest point in a village. We rest over a cup of cafe and a Spanish muffin called a magdelana.

The toughest stretch lies between Burgos and Leon, two major cities on the Camino, where for 200 kilometers, the landscape never seems to end. Burgos and Leon, however, have some of the most magnificent cathedrals in all of Europe where we can take a break from our travels and dissolve into peacefulness. In the villages, people offer us wine, oranges, smiles and a wish for a "Buen Camino" (Good Camino).

Saying goodbye to Leon, we leave the plains behind and ascend into the third and last chunk of the Camino — the providence of Galicia — an isolated part of Spain that is a world unto itself. On the way, we stop in Villafranca del Bierzo, where Jesu Jato runs one of the most famous and authentic refuges on the Camino. Spanish music plays as you are handed a cup of wine, cool water or coffee and led to your bunk in a little hobbit-like room. Built on the side of a hill, there are rocks from all over the world that pilgrims have carried with them. Jato's family has catered to pilgrims for generations. Wooden carvings decorate the outside of Villafranca del Bierzo, solar panels heat the water and, since Jato is a famous healer, healing is offer to any pilgrim in need. Jato sometimes makes a special local Galician drink called "queimada" made from strong alcohol, sugar, coffee beans, lemon and orange rind and then set to flame. There are people along the Camino, they say, who shine more brightly than the sun and Jato is one of them.

We must make a steep 17-mile ascent to enter Galicia and end up pushing our loaded bikes much of the way. No bother, it is all so gorgeous that it gives us more time to gawk at the scenery. At the high point stands the tiny ancient village of O' Cebrerio, a national monument. A half dozen houses called pallozas (round thatched dwellings) and huts made of slate with gigantic slabs of stone covering the roofs give the feeling of Ireland more than Spain. Indeed, there are Celtic roots here in this isolated region. Santa Maria, a beautiful little church, contains a 12th-century statue of the Virgin Mary that reputedly moved its head after a miracle took place in the 16th century.

From these heights, we have magnificent views all around. There are no streetlights here and, if the night is clear, the Milky Way is breathtaking. Another name for the Camino is the Road to the Stars because the route lies directly under the Milky Way.

Galicia fast becomes our favorite section with its lush, hilly land that is crisscrossed with old green lanes and wagon tracks. Stone walls divide the land into tiny parcels and baby lambs nurse in the pasture while men and women work the land by hand and gigantic trees, many centuries old, line our path. We cross clear streams, rolling our bikes over colossal flat stepping-stones. Winding through this bucolic paradise makes us feel as though we are in the Shire from "The Lord of the Rings."

After three days of cycling through paradise, we descend onto the city of Santiago and journey's end. No need to ask the way, we follow thousands in the streets with their symbolic walking staffs and drinking gourds. There are Boy Scout troops, church groups led by priests and nuns, tour groups and the official pilgrims with their backpacks and loaded bicycles. We enter the cathedral's magnificent Portico de la Gloria (Port of Glory), which has been greeting pilgrims for 800 years. We take our turn at placing our right hand on the marble Tree of Jesse. Finger by finger, these indentations were created by millions. We murmur a prayer of thanks to St. James for a safe journey. During the noonday pilgrim's mass, countries of origin and modes of transportation of the newly arrived pilgrims are read aloud. When we hear, "Ocho perigrinos — Estados Unitos — bici." (Eight pilgrims ... United States — bicycles) we smile brightly and proudly nudge each other.

A team of eight robed men emerges to light the famous Botafumerio, the largest incense burner in the world weighing 160 pounds. They hoist it on heavy ropes and, using a system of pulleys, swing it dramatically across the width of the cathedral. Back and forth it swings, gaining momentum, from high in the ceiling to a few feet from the cathedral floor and the heads of the congregation.

The organ blasts, the choir sings, while the Botafumerio spews incense smoke and the entire audience explodes in applause. The pilgrim in front of us weeps openly. Once again I'm tearful and it becomes very clear how special this journey on the Camino has been.


No visit to Santiago would be complete without a tour of this beautiful city and we learned from our guide the colorful story of how St. James' relics came to rest here in Santiago de Compestello. We celebrate our journey's end with a typical Galician meal, complete with calamari and octopus, fresh fish, seafood croquettes, local wine and the famous Santiago almond tart. We get our passport stamped one last time and after examination by the church officials, receive our certificate of completion.

Another pilgrim favorite is to continue on to Finisterre, (in Latin, "End of the earth") by foot, bicycle, taxi or bus). It is the farthermost point on the Iberian Peninsula. St. James was instructed by Jesus Christ to preach "to the end of the earth" and this high rocky green bluff, jutting into the Atlantic was considered in medieval times to be the end of the known world. This was the end of the route for many pilgrims. You'll find pilgrims ceremonially burning their boots out there as they make closure for what they have just accomplished.

© The Denver Post

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